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A land without water: the scramble to stop Jordan from running dry

Climate change, a wave of refugees and poor planning are draining water supplies in Jordan.

Silt crunches under Reda Al-Younes’ shoes as she descends into a sun-baked mudflat in eastern Jordan. She crouches and, with her finger, traces a distant memory of a time when water brought life to this part of the Azraq oasis.

Al-Younes maps out the former channels and pools in the mudflats where she spent her summers more than three decades ago, before she moved to the capital, Amman. She and others in Azraq’s Druze community dug wells by hand to extract saline water. Channels guided it into shallow pools to evaporate, leaving salt that the Druze sold, Al-Younes explains, as she follows the diagram with her finger.

With winter rains, the water table surged and the mudflats flooded. The Druze decamped in October for higher ground until May, when the water retreated and they returned to the mudflats. They grazed small herds of cows and sheep in Azraq’s lush, spring-fed marshes.

“I loved the oasis,” she says, her voice taut with nostalgia.

Half a century ago, Azraq was legendary. Historical photos show ponds flanked by thick clusters of reeds and squat date palms. A shot from 1965, which hangs today in a local lodge, shows a man waist-deep in Shishan Pool. He is fishing, his net suspended in mid-air. All of this — Azraq’s mudflats, marshes and pools — depended on reserves of underground water replenished by yearly rains. In the early 1980s, Jordan’s government began drilling wells near Azraq and pumping millions of cubic metres of water annually from the aquifers — underground layers of porous rock and sediment. Farmers began unfettered pumping of their own.

Soon, the aquifer was losing water faster than rains could refill it. In 1987, the springs that fed the two main pools in northern Azraq stopped flowing. By 1990, the pools dried up. Today, the water table has dropped from the surface to tens of metres below ground. This is happening not just in Azraq, but in aquifers across Jordan.

The plundering of Jordan’s groundwater alarms scientists who are studying the country’s current resources and forecasting future changes. Jordan gets nearly two-thirds of its water from aquifers, and the supply is not sustainable, they say. Global warming has already hit the Middle East hard, and projections indicate this region will suffer profound problems in coming decades as rainfall grows more unpredictable, rising temperatures accelerate evaporation and the land grows drier.

Climate change isn’t the only problem that will stress Jordan’s limited water resources. The country has a rapidly growing population, which has swelled with refugees from adjoining nations, most recently some 660,000 Syrians who have fled civil war, according to the United Nations. And Jordan lacks the rich oil and gas deposits that many of its neighbours have, which limits its ability to pursue expensive options such as desalinating seawater. On top of that, decades of lax policy have allowed the plundering of its water supplies. The combination has rendered Jordan one of the poorest nations on the planet in terms of its water resources — and its struggles offer a window onto the issues that other water-stressed nations are increasingly facing…/…

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